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May 31st, 2019 (Permalink)

Wolf's Howler

Feminist author Naomi Wolf opened her mouth wide, as she frequently does, and jumped in with both feet, as she also often does. In her new book Outrages, she originally claimed, based on the occurrence of the legal term "death recorded", that scores of men were executed in Victorian England for homosexuality1. However, "death recorded" does not mean what she took it to mean2, and none of the supposed victims were executed.

All of this was revealed in a BBC radio interview discussing the new book3:

“['Death recorded'] doesn’t mean that he was executed. It was a category that was created in 1823 that allowed judges to abstain from pronouncing a sentence of death on any capital convict whom they considered to be a fit subject for pardon,” Mr. Sweet [the interviewer] said. "I don’t think any of the executions you’ve identified here actually happened.” After a pause, Ms. Wolf said, “Well, that’s a really important thing to investigate.”1

Yes, indeed. So, why didn't she investigate it before publishing the book?

Wolf is not a lawyer, not even an American one, let alone an expert in British law, so it's not at all surprising that she would misinterpret the British legal phrase "death recorded" in the way she did. I had never heard the term before, and certainly would have interpreted it in the same way. Like Wolf, I'm also not a lawyer, not even a British one, but unlike Wolf I realize that fact. I would never have written a book making such a claim without first checking it with reliable sources.

While I'm not even an American lawyer, here's an example that I am familiar with from American law. In American libel law, in order for a public figure to prove that they were libeled, they must show "actual malice" on the part of the supposed libeler. Despite what it says, "actual malice" has nothing to do with malice, actual or otherwise. In other words, you'd think simply from an understanding of the English language that "malice" means a desire to cause the libeled person harm, but that's not what it means in libel law. Instead, a defamatory statement is made with actual malice if it is made with the knowledge of its falsehood or a reckless disregard for whether or not it is true4. So, one lesson of this incident is to be careful with legal language, especially if you're not a lawyer.

I would have more sympathy for Wolf if this were the first time she had committed such a blunder. None of the reports that I have seen, including the Times one quoted above, mention Wolf's previous gaffe twenty-eight years ago in claiming that 150,000 women were dying each year from anorexia5. What has Wolf learned in the almost thirty years since? Apparently, nothing.

In each case, she acted as though she were scooping the experts. The fact that the news media were not reporting that 150,000 American women were starving themselves to death every year was a sign that it wasn't true, not that they were ignoring it. Similarly, the fact that historians of the Victorian era have not written about homosexuals being executed in Victorian England is an indication that it didn't happen, not that they were suppressing the truth.

The shame of this incident doesn't belong wholly at Wolf's door. When asked about the error, her American publisher threw Naomi to the wolves:

A spokeswoman for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which is publishing “Outrages” in the United States, referred to the issue as an “unfortunate error” but said, “we believe the overall thesis of the book ‘Outrages’ still holds.” She added that while the publisher “employs professional editors, copyeditors and proofreaders for each book project, we rely ultimately on authors for the integrity of their research and fact-checking.”1

So, the publisher brags about all of its "professional editors, copyeditors and proofreaders", but why didn't they catch this error? Given Wolf's past history, they should've been extra diligent in checking every factual claim she made. If those editors, copyeditors and proofreaders can't spot something like this, what good are they? Her publishers ought to apologize to their readers and to Wolf for letting her go out and make a fool of herself in public.

Update (6/18/2019): Today was the day that Wolf's book was supposed to be released6, but Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has announced that the release will be delayed. In addition, it is requesting that copies of the book that have already gone out be returned, which seems like a sensible move―rather like an automobile manufacturer recalling a defective vehicle so that the defects can be repaired in the factory.

“As we have been working with Naomi Wolf to make corrections to Outrages, new questions have arisen that require more time to explore. We are postponing publication and requesting that all copies be returned from retail accounts while we work to resolve those questions,” Houghton Mifflin Harcourt said in a statement.6

Clearly, whatever these "new questions" are, they're not just the "death recorded" issue. Wolf is unhappy with the decision, claiming that the corrections to the book already made are sufficient, but there must be some additional problems that need to be addressed. Perhaps the publisher is finally going to do the fact-checking that should have been done before this embarrassment occurred in order to avoid any further unpleasant surprises. Given all the publicity, it's likely that the book will undergo a fine-toothed combing for additional errors when it does appear.


  1. Concepción de León, "After an On-Air Correction, Naomi Wolf Addresses Errors in Her New Book", The New York Times, 5/24/2019.
  2. E. Cobham Brewer, Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, (1898), p. 1044, available here: "Recorded", accessed: 5/31/2019.
  3. You can hear a clip from the interview here, "Death Recorded: A Question of Evidence", BBC, 2019.
  4. See: Lee E. Berlik, "'Actual Malice' Is Not Actually Malice", The Virginia Defamation Law Blog, 9/9/2013. By this standard, much reporting in the American news media is made with "actual malice".
  5. See: Be your own fact checker!, 2/15/2012.
  6. Corinne Segal, "Naomi Wolf’s book release is postponed over errors and 'new questions'", Lit Hub, 6/14/2019.

May 29th, 2019 (Permalink)

Rule of Argumentation 51: Be as precise as necessary!

In case you've been waiting on tenterhooks2 for the next entry in this series, my apologies for being a month late.

The last entry, if you remember3, admonished you to be as definite as possible when arguing, where "definite" meant unambiguous. This rule is similar, but deals with vagueness.

Just as most words in natural language are ambiguous, most are also vague. What does it mean for a word to be vague4? It means that it is not always clear whether the word applies to something, that is, there are borderline cases. For instance, consider the words "short" and "tall" as applied to people: a seven-foot tall woman is clearly not a short woman; instead, she is tall. In contrast, a five-foot tall man is obviously not a tall man, but a short one. These are clear-cut cases, but what about a man―let's call him "Stretch"―who is 5' 10": is he tall? He's an inch above average height5, so he's not short, but is he tall enough to call him "tall"? Stretch is a borderline case, that is, it's unclear whether he is tall.

What if we put Stretch on tenterhooks and stretch him out another inch? Another two inches? It's not clear how much we would have to stretch him before he became tall. If we managed to stretch him to, say, 6' 3", without killing him, then he'd clearly be a tall man. However, there's no precise line in between 5' 10" and 6' 3" where he would suddenly go from not tall to tall. This is characteristic of vague terms: there is a sort of twilight zone between short and tall occupied by people like Stretch, who are neither short nor tall, but the boundaries of this zone are themselves unclear. There is not only no sharp cutoff between short and tall, there is no sharp cutoff between the vague terms and the twilight zone between them.

As with ambiguity, vagueness in language is usually clarified by context, but it can and does cause problems in reasoning6. For instance, the fact that there are no precise conceptual differences between contrary terms that lie on a continuum―such as "short" and "tall"―can lead people to think that there's really no difference between them. The moral and political debate over abortion is bedeviled by the fact that there is a developmental continuum between a fertilized ovum and an adult human being, and thus no sharp line between non-person and person.

Moreover, just as a fuzzy picture may be unclear as to what it depicts, fuzzy language paints an unclear picture of the world and, at its worst, it may say hardly anything. Vagueness is one of the common tools of the politician who wants to avoid being pinned down on issues, and to appeal to every part of the political spectrum or, at least, to offend no one.

The previous rule on ambiguity advised you to be as unambiguous as possible, but this rule advises you only to be as precise as necessary. This is because excessive precision is itself a fallacy, called "over-precision". Over-precision is bad because it is unnecessary and can mislead. Over-precision is unnecessary by definition: otherwise, it wouldn't be "over", that is, too much precision. It is misleading when it makes people think that a measurement is more precise than it actually is.

So, in your arguments with others try to find the golden mean7 of precision between vagueness and over-precision. Fittingly, the distinction between the two lies on a continuum of precision with a fuzzy zone in between. For this reason, I can't give you precise definitions of either vagueness or precision, but I don't need to. Just aim for the twilight zone.

Next Month: Rule 6


  1. Previous entries in this series:
    1. Rule of Argumentation 1: Appeal to reason!, 12/14/2018.
    2. Rule of Argumentation 2: Be ready to be wrong!, 1/26/2019.
    3. Rule of Argumentation 3: Focus on claims and arguments!, 2/13/2019.
    4. Rule of Argumentation 4: Be as definite as possible!, 3/8/2019.
  2. A tenter is a frame used to stretch cloth, and a tenterhook is a hook used to hold the cloth in place. So, if you're on tenterhooks, you're like a cloth stretched tight in a state of tension and suspense. See: William & Mary Morris, Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (1962), under "tenterhooks".
  3. If you don't, see rule 4 in the list in note 1.
  4. For more on vagueness, see the entry for the fallacy of that name in the alphabetical list of fallacies to your left.
  5. According to Wolfram Alpha, see: "What is the average height of an adult male human being?", accessed: 5/26/2019.
  6. For the fallacies that can result from vagueness, see the entry for the fallacy of that name and its subfallacies in the alphabetical list to your left.
  7. According to Aristotle, a virtue is a mean between the extremes of two vices; for instance, courage is a mean between cowardice and rashness. The poet Horace referred to it as "the golden mean". See: Antony Flew, A Dictionary of Philosophy (Revised 2nd edition, 1984).

May 13th, 2019 (Permalink)

Still No Vacancy at the Hilbert Hotel

In our last visit to the Hilbert Hotel*, we saw that even though the hotel was full it could still provide a room to a new customer. That's because the hotel has an infinite number of rooms: room 1, room 2, room 3, etc., and there is no highest room number.

The Hilbert Company, Inc., that owns the hotel also owns a railroad line. Mr. Hilbert, the president of the company, decided that a special train was needed to supply an infinite number of guests for his hotel. The railway line uses the same patented Transfinite™ technology as the hotel, so that the Hilbert train can hold an infinitude of passengers. Since it can carry an infinite number of passengers the train is, of course, infinitely long, as is the track that it runs on.

This morning, a train arrived at the small station next to the hotel carrying a full load, but the "No Vacancy" light at the hotel was lit. Now, if the train had been carrying only a finite number of passengers, there would have been no problem. The clerk on duty at the desk knew how to accommodate finite numbers of new guests: supposing that there were n newcomers, all he had to do was move every current guest in room m into room n + m. In other words, the guest in room 1 would be moved to room n + 1, the guest in room 2 into room n + 2, the one in room 3 to room n + 3, and so on. This process would leave the first n rooms in the hotel empty.

However, the clerk had never dealt with an infinite number of new guests. He couldn't very well move the current guest in room m into room m + ∞, since there is no such room! Not knowing what to do with an infinite number of impatient new guests, the clerk called the manager for help.

"No problem!" replied the manager, and he explained to the new clerk how to make an infinite number of new rooms available in the hotel when it was full.

What did the manager tell the clerk?


*See: No Vacancy at the Hilbert Hotel, 4/29/2019

May 2nd, 2019 (Permalink)

A News Weak Poll

The news media have to report news 24 hours a day even when there is no news, so why not manufacture new "news"1 by sponsoring a public opinion poll? The presidential election is still more than a year and a half away but polls about it are already being conducted. Trying to predict the nominees now, let alone the eventual winner, is likely to be about as accurate as predicting what the weather will be the same time next year2.

I don't suppose that Newsweek magazine is worse about promoting such polls than other news media, but I can't resist punning on its name. Here's a recent Newsweek headline:

Is Joe Biden Unbeatable?
Ex-Vice President Opens Huge Poll Lead Over Bernie Sanders―
but There's a Catch3

The answer to the headline question is, of course, "no", as it usually is4, and the "catch" is that Biden's lead is too early to mean much. Despite its title, the body of this article makes this point:

Former Vice President Joe Biden opened up a 14-point lead over his main rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders, after Biden officially entered the race last week―but there was a catch. Other polling suggested there was a substantial number of undecided voters waiting to be won over by the various campaigns. Biden’s early advantage…will likely soften over time as other candidates come to the fore in the race. … Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, told Newsweek it is still way too early to crown anyone as a certainty to win. "The political graveyards are full with candidates who got off to an early lead but failed to win the nomination…." Cornell Belcher, a former Democratic National Committee pollster…described public polls as “completely meaningless,” particularly so early in the primary process.

It's nice when a news article hyping a poll tells you that it's junk.

Update (5/11/2019): In more junk news about polls, we're told:

The latest bit of bad news for Beto [O'Rourke] comes in the form of a Monmouth poll of New Hampshire primary voters. He's tied for sixth place, along with Sens. Cory Booker (D., N.J.) and Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.), winning the support of just 2 percent of poll respondents, which is getting dangerously close to "statistically insignificant" territory. It's also not much better than truly insignificant candidates such as Rep. Tim Ryan (D., Ohio), former Gov. John Hickenlooper (D., Colo.), and random Silicon Valley bro Andrew Yang, who are all polling at 1 percent.5

Speaking of statistical significance and insignificance, what is the margin of error (MoE) for this poll? The report quoted above does not tell us. It used to be standard practice for American newspapers to report certain basic facts about polls, including the MoE, even though this information was sometimes relegated to a separate paragraph at the end of the article.

In this case, if you want to know the MoE, you have to go to the Monmouth University Polling Institute's report6. There, you can find out that the MoE for this question is ±5.1 percentage points, which is a larger than usual MoE because only democrats were polled.

To say that something is "statistically significant" simply means that it is not likely to be the result of random chance7. The MoE is a way of indicating how large a difference between statistics must be to be unlikely to be the result of chance. In this case, the difference between two candidates needs to be greater than 5.1 percentage points to be statistically significant.

Logically, "statistically insignificant" must mean that such a difference may well be the result of random chance. Given its MoE, any difference between two candidates that's less than five percentage points is a statistically insignificant difference. So, I'm not sure what the author of the quoted article means in saying that candidates polling only 1% are "truly insignificant". If those polling at 1% are already in "'statistically insignificant' territory", then O'Rourke at 2% is in there with them.

The only stand-outs in the poll are Joe Biden, who is the front-runner at 36%, and Bernie Sanders, who at 18% is a distant second. However, all of the other candidates are grouped together in a pack in the single digits, with Pete Buttigieg leading the pack at 9%. While slightly greater than the MoE, the difference between O'Rourke and Buttigieg is not significant8.

However, as mentioned in the original entry above, it's so early in the race that there's plenty of time for O'Rourke to gain ground, and just as much time for Biden to lose it. The New Hampshire primary, which this poll is supposed to be forecasting, isn't until February of next year9.


  1. See: Junk Headline, 4/22/2019.
  2. Stephanie Slade, "I'm Betting the 2020 Election Polls Are Junk", Reason, 4/4/2019.
  3. Shane Croucher, "Is Joe Biden Unbeatable? Ex-Vice President Opens Huge Poll Lead Over Bernie Sanders―but There's a Catch", Newsweek, 4/30/2019.
  4. This is an old journalistic rule of thumb, namely, that the answer to any headline in the form of a question is: "no".
  5. Andrew Stiles, "Beto O’Rourke Approaching 'Statistically Insignificant' Territory in New Hampshire Poll", The Washington Free Beacon, 5/9/2019.
  6. "Trump Bigger Factor than Obama for 2020 Dem Primary Voters", Monmouth University Polling Institute, 5/9/2019.
  7. See: Victor Cohn, News & Numbers: A Guide to Reporting Statistical Claims and Controversies in Health and Other Fields (1989), p. 176.
  8. I used the following calculator to figure this: "Ballot Lead Calculator", American Research Group, Inc., accessed: 5/11/2019.
  9. See: Jennifer Rubin, "What’s happening in New Hampshire?", The Washington Post, 5/9/2019. Rubin discusses the same poll as that discussed above and begins by noting: "Current polls for the 2020 Democratic primary aren’t predictive."

Solution to Still No Vacancy at the Hilbert Hotel: The manager told the clerk to have the current guest in room n move into room 2n. So, the guest in room 1 would move into room 2, the one in room 2 into room 4, those in room 3 to room 6, and so on. In other words, all of the current guests would move into the even-numbered rooms. There are, in fact, just as many even numbers as there are counting numbers, so this would accommodate the infinite number of current guests. Obviously, this process would leave the odd-numbered rooms empty and, just as there are an infinite number of even-numbered rooms, there are an equal number of odd-numbered ones. Therefore, the new arrivals from the infinite train could be accommodated in the odd-numbered rooms of the hotel.

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